Classic SF

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Classic SF

Postby cmsellers » Sun Jun 08, 2014 12:06 am

I'm not a big fan of conventions, but in my attempt to be social, I went to ConBust as Smith College a few months back. One of the panels was on Classic SF, and it degraded about halfway through into whether Massachusetts or Michigan was more sexist in the 60s.

Since I'm here, where I assume there must be some fans of Classic SF, I thought I'd try to restart the conversation.

In particular, I'd like to discuss the difference between "Golden Age" and New Wave SF.

I've noticed that most people I talk to seem associate New Wave SF with a handful of good and/or well-known authors, notably Ursula K. Le Guin and Phillip K. Dick (everybody likes those two), Harlan Ellison (whose work I consider pretentious and often insufferable), and a few others such as Zelazny and Sturgeon.

Meanwhile, I've noticed that people seem to associate the Golden Age with space opera, and writers such as Doc Smith and L. Ron Hubbard, and with the editorship of John Campbell.

I consider these associations unfair, because I've read lot of both, than think that in general, Golden Age SF is more enjoyable than New Wave stuff. Only four of my favorite SF authors (Le Guin, Sturgeon, Dick, and John Brunner) are known as New Wave writers, and Sturgeon is associated with the Golden Age as well. Meanwhile I can't count my favorite Golden age authors on the fingers of both hands (top four are Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke, Fredric Brown, and either Clifford Simak or Sturgeon again).

Any rate, I like Golden Age SF better than New Wave SF in part because I think New Wave stuff is often pretentious (Ellison again and James Morrow come to mind), but even New Wave SF that isn't self-consciously "literary" often feels far more dated than earlier Golden Age SF.

I think that there's a combination of factors for this:

  1. Golden Age SF was written in the interwar period, WWII, and during the early stages of the Cold War. Writers had grown up in he interwar period, and later experienced WWII. Most powers functioned to some degree as democracies, and then as now the world seemed bound ultimately bound for freedom, though slowly and sometimes at great cost (as with WWII). New Wave writers often came of age during the Cold War, when totalitarian Marxism had seized control of Russia and China and was spreading across the Eurasia, dictatorships ran many countries in the "Free World," and moralists were using the Cold War against godless Russia in an attempt to enforce a sort of Christian totalitarianism at home. Thus New Wave SF generally takes place in a very dark future where the government is pervasive, while Golden Age SF has a more "frontier" feels more relevant to the Internet age.

  2. Golden Age SF tends to focus on the effects of technological change, and even if a technological idea is later discredited, new advances and Clarke's third law mean that technologically weak SF is never really dated. New Wave SF tends to experiment with new theories in social science, at a time when Marxism and post-modernism dominated social science and human nature was assumed to be far more malleable than it actually is. A key example to my mind is Ted Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" It's still a powerful work but seeing as we now know that the incest taboo works by imprinting, is genetically ingrained, and that it is by no means unique to humans, it's jarring to see claims to the contrary in the devil's advocacy passages.

  3. In Golden Age SF, there was no dwelling on social mores, because certain mores were fairly universally accepted. New Wave SF was written during the Civil Rights movement, second wave of feminism, hippy movement, and early gay rights movement. Thus most New Wave SF is written with a conscious focus on social change, but it often has difficulty predicting which movements would succeed, or how quickly. Golden Age SF has some jarring moments, especially in regards to gender roles, but it's far more jarring to see Norman Spinrad include gay rights groups in a list of criminally insane organizations, or Sturgeon arguing that nobody will listen to a divorcee.

  4. Golden Age SF is often set in rural areas (cf. Fredric Brown, Clifford Simak) or far in the future, operating under Clarke's Law. New Wave SF is usually set in cities on Earth. Rural areas change relatively slowly, but cities change quite rapidly, and often in unexpected ways. The idea that Miami would be the financial capital of Latin America, San Jose would be the technological capital of the US, or Phoenix would be our sixth largest city would all have come as a surprise to most people 30 years ago. However they would have told you that New York is a crime-ridden hellhole, Chicago is the Second City, and and Detroit is the heart of American industry.
Any comments on what you think of when you thing of "Golden Age" and "New Wave" SF?
Any thoughts on my analysis of the differences between the two?

Edits to fix and to explain fix: I realized I confused Michael Moorcock with James Morrow. The only Moorcock book I've read is Behold The Man, which was decent reading, though nowhere near as powerful as it might have been at the time.
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Last edited by cmsellers on Mon Jun 09, 2014 6:04 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Classic SF

Postby Jack Road » Sun Jun 08, 2014 2:53 pm

Overall I would say that Golden Age SF has a great deal more hope and faith in the overall direction humanity is heading.

Whereas New Wave SF is a bit more pessimistic. Also, New Wave tends to focus on soft science. Theoretical science, entirely fictional science, possible future science, ect.

It does tend to be fairly snobbish towards Pulp Era SF and Golden Age SF.
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Re: Classic SF

Postby cmsellers » Wed Jul 13, 2016 4:03 am

I want to say that I got a couple of collections of SF out of the university library about a month ago: Before the Golden Age and 50 Short Science Fiction Tales both edited by Issac Asimov, Yesterday's Tomorrows edited by Fredrik Pohl, and The Good Old Stuff edited by Gardner Dozois. Before The Golden Age underlines why the Golden age was called the Golden Age, it's an interesting read but most of the stories are disappointing. 50 Short Science Fiction Tales is a collection of what Asimov calls "short shorts" under 3,000 words. Most of the stories are fun and I think I may re-read the whole anthology before I return it.

However the other two anthologies have helped me discover new SF authors whom I'd known about but never really pursued before. I've discovered that I really like Murray Leinster, L. Sprague De Camp, and H. Beam Piper. All of them are really good short story writers; I went and got some collections by each of them to read more. Leinster may make it onto my list of all-time favorite writers. I've been meaning to obtain collections by Leigh Brackett and Jack Williamson as well, and I got a collection of Van Vogt stories but haven't looked at them.

I also read two really good stories from the New Wave era in Yesterday's Tomorrows (which spans Pohl's editorial career to that point). One--"Among the Bad Baboons" by Mack Reynolds--is very New Wavey and yet very good. Pohl describes him as a fan-favorite writer and I'll have to find some more of his stories. "Life Hater" by Fred Saberhagen is distinctly non-New Wavey, but I did obtain and read the entire first collection of Berserker stories as a result. They're good, but it seems like I should read the first Berserker novel before continuing to the next collection and am not in the mood for reading novels.
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Re: Classic SF

Postby cmsellers » Wed Aug 24, 2016 3:07 am

I just want to say that I've been reading some stuff by three authors whom I'd read stuff by before but hadn't appreciated just how good they are: James Schmitz, Robert Sheckley, and William Tenn. Schmitz and Tenn are really good but Sheckley is in a world of his own. He pushes out Arthur C. Clarke as my second-favorite SF author, behind only Jack Vance. Like Vance, I'm making an effort to read everything he's ever written.

Project Gutenburg has stuff by all three and you should check them out if you like SF, particularly humorous SF. Sheckley and Tenn are both humorous writers, in fact when someone asked Douglas Adams the difference between himself and Sheckley he was reported to have said: "Robert Sheckley is a better writer." Schmitz also has a sense of humor in much of his writing.

For Sheckley, my favorites of his free stories are "Diplomatic Immunity" and "Sweeper of Loray."

For Schmitz, "Novice" and "Gone Fishing" are pretty great.

For Tenn, "Project Hush" is the only good story among the ones on Gutenberg; the others are merely OK. But "Project Hush" is great, so do check it out. Also, though it's not on Gutenberg, I love "On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi."

There's also the Science Fiction Bookshelf, if you're interested. It's a bit out of date, so if you like an author check the author page on Gutenberg.

Several pretty amazing stories are on there, but I don't have the energy to go beyond these three authors right now.
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